Drone Acquired Evidence in Civil Cases
Can lawyers use drones to obtain evidence in civil cases? This article gives a primer on the FAA v Pirker case, the 2012 FAA Modernation and Reform Act, and discusses admissibility issues relating to drones from a (mostly) Florida case law perspective.
February 2015 Page 11
As the year 2014 draws to a close,
holiday gift-giving is abuzz with the sounds
of quadcopters since drones have landed
on many wish lists. Legal issues are poised
to take flight over models which can top
$1,000 or more, such as the Parrot BeBop or DJI Phantom II,
which can fly outside of the pilot’s line-of-sight, stream in-flight
video or photos, and even automatically return “home” via GPS.
Will 2015 be the year where lawyers obtain and submit drone-
acquired evidence in court?
According to a December 2014 article in the New Jersey
Law Journal, at least one firm outside of Florida has purchased
a drone to shoot overhead video of a fire casualty and, in another
instance, a parking lot in a premises liability case. Would that
type of evidence be admissible in Florida?
Florida has a drone statute but it appears to carve out an
exception allowing drone evidence in civil cases. Florida Statute
934.50 prevents law enforcement from gathering evidence (except
in limited circumstances) and disallows drone evidence “in a
criminal prosecution in any court of law in this state.” Notably, the
statute does not prevent: (a) non-law enforcement agencies from
using drones; (b) private companies or citizens from using drones;
nor (c) admission of drone evidence in non-“criminal prosecution”
matters such as administrative and civil suits.
Before taking to the air, law firms should be aware of
Michael Huerta, Admin., FAA v. Raphael Pirker, a November
2014 decision by the NTSB which held that drones fall into the
broad definition of “aircraft” and that the FAA prohibits careless
and reckless operation. In the Pirker case, the operator was
shooting commercial video and flew in a manner that the FAA
deemed in violation of airspace rules. Once aloft, drone operators
need to be aware that certain locations and flying techniques may
violate federal law.
Additionally, drone-equipped law firms should be cognizant
of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 which
specifically prohibits the commercial use of drones absent an
exemption. In short, a law firm which flies a drone to acquire
evidence would likely be alleged to be operating the drone for
commercial purposes, not unlike the situation in Pirker (of note,
Pirker was a pre-Act case). The FAA is not expected to provide
additional “drone rules” until 2016-2017 which means current
regulations may be unclear and are subject to overhaul in the
So what steps would a lawyer consider for admitting drone-
acquired evidence? Under Florida Rule of Evidence 402, all
relevant evidence is admissible, except as provided by law. To
that end, drone-operators will want to protect against challenges
that the evidence was obtained contrary to law. Obviously, in
the appropriate context, parties have certain Fourth Amendment
rights and, under the Florida Constitution, practitioners need
to consider the broader rights in Article I, sections 12 and 23
(these provisions may have limited practical application given
F.S. 934.50). In U.S. v. Javis, the U.S. Supreme Court held that
improperly-obtained evidence in a criminal case could, however,
be admitted in a subsequent civil case. Similarly, in State v.
Scarlet, the Florida Supreme Court confirmed that illegally-
obtained evidence could be used in non-criminal, administrative
In approaching how to admit drone evidence, counsel
should review Lorraine v. Markel American Ins., 241 F.D.R.
534 (D. Md. 2007) which provides a near step-by-step analysis
for admitting several forms of electronic evidence.
Interesting questions arise whether evidence obtained
illegally – such as a drone trespassing, invading privacy, or
violating FAA regulations – would be admissible in civil cases.
Case law regarding the use of private investigators who obtain
evidence while trespassing could provide persuasive guidance.
Lawyers using or relying on drones need to be especially
mindful not to intercept communications in violation of state
and federal wiretapping laws (consider muting or disabling the
drone’s microphone). An instructive criminal case is McDade v.
State, where the Florida Supreme Court threw out incriminating
recordings which violated the wiretapping statute. In O’brien
v. O’brien, the Fifth District held that a former spouse’s
interception of email was illegal and refused to admit such
evidence (note the discussion in O’brien of a possible defect
in Chapter 934). Outside of Florida, in Collins v. Collins, a
spouse was illegally recorded however the Texas wiretap statute,
unlike Florida’s, does not prohibit admissibility. Nonetheless,
the Collins court held that the statute’s prohibition against
dissemination, alone, made the recording inadmissible. The
dissent in the Third District case, Burgmann v. State, includes
some discussion of privacy as well as the distinctions between
the Florida and federal wiretap laws.
Lawyers also should be aware that evidence obtained in
violation of the Rules of Professional Conduct may be stricken
as a sanction. In Golden Door v. Lloyds, the District Court (S.D.
Florida) confirmed that a violation of Rule 4-3.4 warranted the
exclusion of tainted evidence. Likewise, the mis-use of drones
may lead to tort liability.
Looking ahead, drones may re-write privacy laws much
like other technology advancements have influenced the
“what society is prepared to recognize” test for privacy.
Recent examples include U.S. v. Jones, where GPS data was
inadmissible because the Supreme Court revived a dormant
“physical intrusion” test (see also Florida v. Jardines). In State
v. Gibson, the Third District held that it was not a privacy
violation while a person submitted a DNA sample to be ruled
out as a suspect in one crime but law enforcement then placed
his genetic code in a permanent, nationwide CODIS database.
Christopher B. Hopkins is a partner at Akerman LLP.
Congratulate him for avoiding the quip “Game of Drones” at
use of Drone-acquired evidence in civil cases
by Christopher B. Hopkins
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